Welcome to year eight of the annual “Prospects the UFC Should Sign” series, in which we’ll examine five MMA prospects per division the UFC should sign this year.
This series started during my time as a writer for Bleacher Report, continued through my tenures at Today’s Knockout and FanSided and now it stays alive another year here at Combat Press.
Let’s start with the heavyweight division, a weight class that has added new talent, but needs more fighters on the roster to add depth to the division. It’s still one of the toughest classes to fill, but there is good talent available.
In picking these prospects, I’ll try my hardest to stay away from fighters who are currently in top organizations, such as Bellator or the Professional Fighters League, but a couple may pop up. In the past, I’ve had some great picks on the list and some that haven’t worked out. Below are the previous year’s selections, followed by the five men the UFC should offer roster spots to this year.
2012: Shamil Abdurakhimov, Jared Rosholt, Tyler East, Guram Gugenishvili, Magomed Malikov
2013: Derrick Lewis, Damian Grabowski, Smealinho Rama*, Satoshi Ishii, Maro Perak
2014: Marcin Tybura, Anthony Hamilton, Konstantin Erokhin, Dmitriy Sosnovskiy, Smealinho Rama*
2015: Marcin Tybura, James Mulheron, Cody East, Denis Goltsov*, Chris Barnett
2016: Cody East, Sergey Pavlovich, Denis Goltsov*, Denis Smoldarev*, Karol Bedorf
2017: James Mulheron, Sergey Pavlovich, Denis Smoldarev*, Ivan Shtyrkov*, Fernando Rodrigues
2018: Jeff Hughes, Amir Aliakbari, Roggers Souza, Michal Andryzak, Ricardo Prasel
Note: Bold denotes fighter was signed by UFC; * denotes fighter ineligible due to two years on list.
Aliakbari, 31, makes his second appearance in as many years. The Iranian juggernaut continues to be one of the best heavyweights not in the UFC. The 250-pound fighter knocked off tough opponents while continuing to make his case to the world’s largest MMA promotion.
The 6-foot-4 Greco-Roman wrestler has a background at the Olympic level. He is immensely powerful on the shot and doesn’t give up position on the mat when he does get guys down. He is training his striking at American Kickboxing Academy’s satellite gym in Thailand under underrated trainer Mike Swick and continues to show improvements. In 2018, not only did he beat fellow prospect Denis Smoldarev in under two and a half minutes, but he also scored a decision over UFC veteran Daniel Omielanczuk, a strong striker.
Aliakbari would be an immediate threat upon entering the company, but it appears he’s still with Absolute Championship Akhmat (formerly Berkut), so he may have to fight out that contract first. Regardless, the UFC should look at investing in this Iranian beast.
It’s rare that a fighter with less than three fights receives mention in this series, but an exception will be made for the Frenchman Gane. This spot was originally reserved for Raphael Pessoa, Gane’s upcoming opponent in 2019, but after rewatching Gane’s fights, we just had to go with this monster.
Gane is a fantastic striker. Not only is he powerful and accurate with his punches (and his occasional kicks), but he’s very quick on his feet for a heavyweight. He’s a great athlete, too. Gane leads with a good, stiff jab that softens his opponent up. Then, when he figures out his distance, he unleashes massive haymakers with knockout power on each punch. In closer quarters, he bullies guys and lands with his dirty boxing. Watch his most recent fight, where the Frenchman absolutely dismantled former top prospect Adam Dyczka.
Gane is already scheduled to throw down with the aforementioned Pessoa in the respected TKO organization, where Gane is champion. If Gane can handle Pessoa like he handled Dyczka, then the UFC should be tripping over itself to throw a contract his way. There are huge things in Gane’s future.
Tipping the scales at the heavyweight limit, and likely needing to cut to make 265 pounds, Romanov, who hails from Moldova, is an absolute leviathan of a man. The undefeated fighter is a former sumo wrestler and just 28 years old, meaning he has a unique set of skills and is still a young guy with a bright future in the sport.
Romanov’s game plan is simple: close the distance, drag down his opponent and beat them up on the ground. He’s never gone to a decision, which shows how he tires guys out and then finishes them with ease. Most of his wins come in the first round. He has ferocious ground-and-pound, but, surprisingly, it’s his submission game which is actually quite good. He even has a finish with an Ezekiel choke. The year 2018 was a very busy one for the Moldovan, who won four times, including a sub-90 second submission of Strikeforce veteran Virgil Zwicker.
The UFC comes to Europe enough that the addition of a talent like this is a no-brainer. He could be thrown on one of those cards, say the one in the Czech Republic or England. Romanov is still developing, but he’s doing so quickly. If built up properly, he could easily be a top-10 talent.
Brazil’s Souza makes his second appearance on this list and continues to be a top heavyweight prospect. The massive Nova União product is a finishing machine that has torn up his home country and then brought his talents to the Russian regional scene.
Souza is a striker, but his time spent training with Nova União means he has a very refined ground game as well. He finishes fights quickly, as all but one of his wins have come in the first round. He started off his career by crushing cans, but he has quickly moved up to veterans and notable fighters. In 2018, he scored wins over Vladimir Dayneko in brutal fashion, as well as Kleber Souza.
The UFC goes to Brazil frequently each year, so Souza should be one of the first guys the company considers when it scouts for new talent. Not only would he add depth to a division that desperately needs it, but the UFC would be adding a guy that could contend in no time. Plus, UFC President Dana White and company love finishers, and this guy checks that box.
The youngest of the heavyweights on this year’s list, Spivak, a 23-year-old Ukrainian, has quickly jumped onto the scene and made himself a noticeable prospect in a division that needs young, talented guys. The 240-pounder has a very bright future and should be a guy that you see and hear about for many years to come.
Spivak is one of the new breed of fighters, coming from an actual MMA background instead of one specific discipline. He’s got strong striking skills, as seen in his knockout wins, which includes a head-kick finish. He’s also very strong on the ground, where he uses superior position and strong submission skills. This can be seen in his most recent bout, where Spivak tapped out longtime MMA veteran and cult favorite Tony Lopez with a neck crank.
Again, Spivak’s skill and youth are great for the division. He’s a true blue-chip prospect who could be a title challenger in several years if he keeps up with his development.